Hero of heroes

In light of recent events in Paris, Sydney, Peshawar, and the rest, I thought it appropriate to say something positive about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The two extracts below are taken from the book ‘The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography’ by Barnaby Rogerson, published by ‘Little, Brown’ (2003). The first extract is taken from the chapter ‘Preface: Dreaming of the Prophet’, whilst the second extract is taken from the chapter ‘Epilogue: The Successor’

Preface: Dreaming of the Prophet

The life of the Prophet Muhammad is a story of overpowering pathos and beauty. It is history, tragedy and enlightenment compressed into one tale. It is also a story virtually unknown to the West. Compare this ignorance with our enthusiasm for Father Christmas or the Three Kings: love them or loathe them, they stand only on the very outer fringes as spiritual teachers or historical characters, yet they are surrounded by a mythology of contrary ideas, perpetuated by recurrent images and historical novels. Set against even such peripheral mythical figures of Western belief as these, the Prophet Muhammad simply does not feature. To be brutally honest, he has a negative rating. Nor are the associated images particularly good. Try drawing a picture of a man wrapped in a cloak and lost in thought and introducing it to a classroom of schoolchildren or at a pub quiz night. Ask who it is meant to be, and what do you get? Dracula, Darth Vader or a Dark Rider from The Lord of the Rings. If you add a turban, the picture will most probably be taken for that of a wicked vizier or a Barbary pirate.

Within Islam, however, he represents almost everything of human value. Muhammad, Prophet of God, the last and greatest of that long line of men, from Adam through to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, who have struggled to bring the word of God to mankind. Even when viewed in an entirely secular perspective he remains a superhero. He was founder of the Caliphate, one of the greatest empires of the world; creator of classical Arabic, a new literature and world language; founder of a new national identity, the Arab; and creator of Islam, a worldwide culture that is now 1,200 million strong and growing more rapidly than you can count. Only by marrying the best qualities of certain characters from European civilization — a combination, say, of Alexander the Great, Diogenes and Aristotle, or the Emperor Constantine, St Paul and St Francis — can you begin to understand the measure of the man.

Of course, his historical achievements were mere accidental spin-offs. His only purpose was to forge a new relationship between God and mankind. To those billions of believers who follow in his spiritual path he is omnipresent within the individual world of imagination, prayer and petition. He is perceived in many ways. He is the ultimate stern patriarch, that man of men who stands at the forefront of all the saints, heroes and good rulers from centuries of proud Muslim history. He is the implacable lawgiver, the guide who has clearly pointed out the roads of destiny: this way leads to heaven, this way to hell. He is the loving grandfather, leading the prayers in the mosque while his infant grandson clambers upon his shoulders. He is the sacrificial hero who goes into the testing fire of the spiritual world for the benefit of mankind, shaken to the core of his very being by the terror of being addressed by God through the angels — and all the while persecuted and reviled by his own people. He is the great lover of women — he required no other luxuries, no possessions, so complete was his joy and satisfaction in the company of his wives. He is the wise sage who despised the luxurious trappings of royalty, the halls, guards, courtiers, silks and gold that hitherto had always been associated with power. He is also the savant of the mystics, the guide who has led generations of dervishes, sufis, poets and lovers of God on their quests. He is the only man to have journeyed to heaven and back. He is the Hero of Heroes…

Epilogue: The Successor

As the sun rises over each successive longitude of the globe, the dawn prayer ripples out from the throats of the faithful, so that the whole world is now encircled in a continuous wave of praise. Muhammad’s greatest gift to the world is revealed every time a Muslim stands alone to pray directly to God. This revolution in spiritual attitude, the direct communion between believer and deity, is Muhammad’s triumphant achievement. He himself always possessed an extraordinarily close relationship with the divine, revealed in that haunting revelation that ‘God is closer to you than your jugular vein’. This intimacy had it’s own personal price, for he was overwhelmed by the sense of the omnipotence of the deity and the insignificance of mankind, leading to a fear that the end of the world was but a breath away. This heavy sense of foreboding helps explain the decisiveness with which he acted in the last years of his life.

Muhammad was enormously proud to stand in a line of succession with the prophets of old. Islam freely drew from the great reservoir of religious experience: the ethical teachings of Christ were combined with the family and community centred religious life of the Jews. An intellectually elegant and conceptually sturdy monotheism was combined with a passionate awareness of a Day of Judgement. But Muhammad was also the Prophet of the Arabs. His Islam quarried the noble traditions of the Arabs. It took the loyalty and strong sense of community that had been hitherto focused on the clan and tribe, and extended it to embrace the whole society of believers. It elevated the fine qualities of the successful caravan merchants (their hilm – self control – and aql – rational judgement) but directed it away from personal ambition to the communal care of the weak and the poor. Islam suppressed the blood feud and replaced it with a community that collectively enforced public justice, defended itself and took responsibility for education and social welfare. The old traditions of tribal raiding were replaced by the jihad, the struggle against unbelievers on the frontiers of Islam and in the hearts of the hypocrites.

A Muslim must believe that the Qur’an comes from God. Muhammad’s role was to shape this divine inspiration into a language that could not only be understood but could inspire his fellow Arabs. This was his genius; to transform his own religious experience, which was by its very nature highly individual, and create from it something of relevance to a whole society and indeed to succeeding generations. There is an unearthly, timeless magic about the Qur’an. There are verses in it that must have seemed mysterious and indecipherable for centuries, but which suddenly glow with an acute relevance in later ages whose outlook has been changed by scientific discoveries and an expanding understanding of the world. In the farewell sermon, the Prophet had declared to his people, ‘I leave behind me two things, the Qur’an and my example, the Sunnah, and if you follow these you will never go astray’.

It has been a challenge that many societies have grappled with but very few have managed to meet. Within Islam all that is of merit in mankind is embodied by the Prophet Muhammad. As Rumi, the great mystic medieval poet, declared, ‘He is the evidence of God’s existence’, while Muhammad said of himself, ‘I, too, am a man like you.’

Peace be upon you, Prophet of God.


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